The trial of Mr Milosevic sends a clear message to the world's despots

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The Independent Online

It was a truly historic moment. The once all-powerful Slobodan Milosevic stood yesterday before international justice in The Hague – a scene which, just a few years ago, seemed impossible to imagine. The fact that we have got so far is good news for justice in the Balkans – and for justice in the world.

When the international war crimes tribunal was established in 1993, it seemed unthinkable that we would ever get this far. The tribunal appeared little more than a diplomatic face-saver, allowing world leaders to give the impression that they were tough on war crimes and tough on the causes of war crimes. It was pure fantasy. Milosevic, who had unleashed such bloody havoc in the Balkans, remained the man who Western politicians queued up to talk to. He was (to use a favourite diplomatic phrase of the time) "a key player". So irrelevant was the tribunal that Mr Milosevic himself could afford to be magnanimous in his co-operation. Yesterday, he airily insisted that he did not recognise the tribunal's legitimacy – and yet, five years ago he had been happy to hand over Drazen Erdemovic, a war-crimes minnow, for prosecution at the selfsame court.

Milosevic's lack of consistency is hardly surprising. But the changed attitudes towards the former Serb leader serve as a reminder that Mr Milosevic is not the only one who may find himself embarrassed by what emerges in the months to come, when the trial itself gets under way. Douglas Hurd, then Foreign Secretary, and others may feel uncomfortable when remembering their gushing appreciations of Milosevic's alleged contributions to "peace".

A commonsense observation of events in Bosnia and Kosovo led to only one conclusion. Above all, Mr Milosevic created the permissive atmosphere in which brutality was able to flourish. Like Sherlock Holmes's dog that did not bark, the benevolence of the Serb authorities towards war criminals was eloquent testimony to the acceptance and encouragement of such crimes by the Mr Milosevic regime and by Mr Milosevic.

That is, however, a very different matter from producing legally watertight evidence – the paper trail, or the chain of command – which will be essential if the tribunal's judges are to convict Milosevic. This will be the slender thread linking the sphinx-like former president, who almost certainly never pulled a trigger, and the crimes which took place while he was in power. It is likely to prove a difficult task.

The fact that Mr Milosevic now faces international justice is a tribute to the unshakeable determination of Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, and her team. In past years, Western governments repeatedly rebuffed the tribunal's requests for the arrests of wanted war criminals. That has now changed – not least, it must be said, because of the change of government in Britain in 1997 (the phrase ethical foreign policy was not just an empty soundbite; officials at The Hague pay tribute to the support they have received from Tony Blair in recent years).

The Hague tribunal is in some respects a new Nuremberg. Once more, a court punishes crimes against humanity. This time, however, it is not just victors' justice. The message of the Hague is: a crime is a crime, whoever it is committed by. The proposed creation of the International Criminal Court – a kind of Hague mark two, which will be able to prosecute war crimes without the need for the creation of ad hoc tribunals – is a welcome reminder that the years when dictators could expect bad behaviour always to go unpunished are now definitively over. Milosevic's defiance when he appeared in the dock yesterday implied that he still does not comprehend the important change that has taken place. He will, he will.